100 years of piazzolla: the tango 'assassin's' close calls - los angeles times

100 years of piazzolla: the tango 'assassin's' close calls - los angeles times

Eight-year-old Astor Piazzolla, a street-smart New Yorker, wanted a baseball bat, a biographer would later recount. What he got was a bandonen, a bulky instrument of rural German origin that crossed the Atlantic with 19th century immigrant ships and became fundamental to the tango, the emblematic musical expression of Astors native Argentina.

Piazzolla became the visionary who revolutionized the tango that doleful mlange of broken hearts, dirty dancing and soul-crushing melancholy developed in the South American immigrant melting pot of Argentina and Uruguay.

The reboot drew scorn in Argentina, where traditional tango was as essential to the national character as soccer. But, ultimately, he was hailed globally as a genre-bending genius who had done for the tango something like what Picasso did for modern art.

His hundreds of compositions including orchestral works, opera, ensemble pieces with bandonen, film scores and big-band numbers continue to influence not only modern tango players, but also rock, pop, jazz and funk musicians.

Piazzolla made a deep impression on Jacob Collier, a multi-genre British prodigy and Grammy winner. Collier, who played in a tango band at age 14, told Argentine daily La Nacin in 2019: For me, Piazzolla was God.

This year, Argentina and the world are marking the centenary of Piazzollas birth, even as the coronavirus continues to rage. Concert venues and radio stations from Buenos Aires to Paris are rolling out Piazzolla 100" tributes for a virtuoso who rose from humble origins to become one of the leading Latin American composers of the 20th century.

This capitals signature opera house, the Teatro Coln, reopened to live audiences last month for the first time since the pandemic struck with concerts featuring Piazzollas work. The performances were a welcome balm for a wounded national soul after months of lockdowns, illness and economic distress.

Piazzollas music touches me deeply, so much so that I could cry, said Vernica Armour, 53, a government employee who was among the recent visitors at a Piazzolla exhibition at the Kirchner Cultural Center in downtown Buenos Aires. The emotion hits you right in the heart. And I dont even like the tango. But I love the music of Piazzolla.

Piazzolla was a man of medium stature who carried a Hemingway-sized chip on his shoulder, confident that his talent, honed through indefatigable study and practice, could transcend the boundaries of his craft. And, like Hemingway, he was pugnacious, not one to suffer fools, or critics.

Astor Pantalen Piazzolla, grandson of an Italian immigrant fisherman, was born March 11, 1921, in Mar del Plata, a seaside town 260 miles south of Buenos Aires. A deformed foot at birth required surgeries and left his right leg permanently weakened an irony for a musician who pioneered new paradigms for a dance style.

He had a bit of a complex about it, his son, Daniel Piazzolla, recalled in the 2018 documentary Piazzolla, the Years of the Shark by Daniel Rosenfeld, a Buenos Aires filmmaker. But dont you dare call him lame! Hed tear you up!

In 1925, when Astor was 4, the family emigrated to New York, settling into the Lower East Side alongside other immigrants, mostly from Italy and Eastern Europe. It was the Roaring 20s, a time of social and cultural tumult in Prohibition-era America. The family produced whiskey in a bathtub still to supplement income, Piazzolla told his daughter in one of a series of taped interviews used in the documentary.

His father cut hair in a barbershop where the back room was a numbers parlor, he said. Nonino sometimes rolled up his shirt to show a scar where he said a bullet had grazed his arm in a mob encounter of opaque provenance.

Nonino, who doted on his only child, was a motorcycle enthusiast, an amateur accordion player and a devotee of the tango, with its myriad origins in African, European and Creole traditions. European immigrants to South America introduced tangos decisive touch the bandonen, developed in Germany as a kind of portable organ to serve small parishes and traveling clergy. The fusion of musical styles that became the tango coalesced in the late 19th century dance halls of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Piazzolla said he learned to love Bach and read music from Bla Wilda, a down-on-his-heels Hungarian pianist who lived down the street and had been a student of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Astor and friends traveled to Harlem to hear Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and he idolized Bill Bojangles Robinson even performing tap to the harmonica on 14th Street with a friend, passing a hat for change.

He improbably caught the eye of Carlos Gardel, the baritone-voiced mega-star of the tango who was making films in New York with Paramount after a cabaret run in Paris. The dashing tango legend and innovator of the tango cancin (sung tango) was impressed with Astors moxie, English-speaking skills and facility with the bandonen. He gave the impish Piazzolla a bit role as a paperboy in the 1935 film El Da Que Me Quieras (The Day That You Love Me).

Gardel even invited the 14-year-old Astor to accompany him on tour, but the family decided he was too young. It was a fortuitous decision. The 1935 tour ended in catastrophe when Gardel, 44, and his entire entourage were killed in an airplane crash in Medelln, Colombia, a cultural apocalypse that sent the tango universe into profound mourning.

My music, 50% of it, comes from when I lived in New York, he told his daughter, Diana, who wrote Astor, her quasi-fictionalized biography of her father. In my blood, in my guts, Ive got New York inside of me. New York is my place.

With the Depression convulsing the United States, the Piazzolla family returned to Mar del Plata in 1936, a kind of golden age for tango culture. Astor, then 15, talked his way into bands and soon moved to Buenos Aires, a prodigy playing with some of the eras best-known ensembles, notably the orchestra of the legendary Anbal Troilo.

Troilo, however, would chide his protg for using too many notes in his arrangements, confounding the dancers, Azzi says. A young Piazzolla once confided to a colleague his awe at the prospect of playing Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra, his biographer notes.

Even as he became famous and started his own tango orchestra, Piazzolla aspired to classical composition. He haunted rehearsals and performances at the Teatro Coln. Always brash, he took a piano score to the apartment of Arthur Rubinstein, the Polish-born piano virtuoso, then living in Buenos Aires.

I studied and studied, and was happy, Piazzolla said, recalling his lessons with Alberto Ginastera, a celebrated Argentine classical composer. I analyzed music, started to buy records. I started to listen. And to change.

Increasingly, Piazzolla turned to composing. In 1953, his symphonic piece Buenos Aires, notable because it integrated two bandonens with a classical orchestra, won a prestigious composing contest. That helped score him a scholarship to study in Paris. By then, Piazzolla later told interviewers, he was trying to put tango behind him, despite knowing hundreds of pieces by heart. But he lugged the 22-pound bandonen to Europe.

In Paris, he studied under Nadia Boulanger, a famously demanding teacher who had mentored many U.S. composers, including Aaron Copeland. She found Piazzollas symphonic work technically sound but lacking personality. She asked him to play the bandonen.

She didnt hear the chan cha cha, the common chin boom of all the tangos, Piazzolla told his daughter. She heard a new tango, and opened my eyes wide. I grabbed the bandonen and from there never stopped. It was, I think, the most effervescent moment of my life in terms of creativity.

He formed an octet including an electric guitar, signaling a clear break with tradition. His fused a vision of jazz, classical and tango sounds with jagged improvised riffs that left dance in the dust. This was music to be listened to, he declared.

He finally found a regular gig, not in New York but in a tango revue at the Club Flamboyn in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On opening night, word came that his beloved Nonino had died back in Mar del Plata. He kept on playing.

Jazz aficionados flocked to the nightclub act. He released several albums, including a collaboration with author Jorge Luis Borges, and composed an operetta (Mara de Buenos Aires) and several other works with Horacio Ferrer, the Uruguayan poet.

Watching him play was incredible, Mulligan said in an interview on file with the U.S. Library of Congress. He would do all these very modern voicings on the thing, and in order to reach these buttons, his fingers looked like snakes going all over. It had a really uncanny sense to it.

During these years, Piazzolla frequently returned to Argentina, even during the 1976-83 military dictatorship a brutal regime that sent his daughter, a social activist, into exile in Mexico. Piazzolla didnt mix publicly in politics and was later apologetic about a lunch that he and other artists attended with Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the Argentine dictator.

Im doing what I want I always do, he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 interview before his L.A. debut at UCLAs Royce Hall with his final group, the New Tango Sextet. Look, Im not a Julio Iglesias. I play none of the old repertoire. There are some stupid people who expect me to play things like that to get more applause, but I wont do it. Ill never sell my soul to the devil for applause never. Im not interested in being the richest man in the cemetery.

This year, the outcast and renegade turned cherished native son is being celebrated in Argentina not only at the Teatro Coln, but also in cultural centers and at online sites featuring look-backs at Piazzolla, his life and music, including his pivotal sojourn in New York. If pandemic concerns permit, organizers are planning a year-end outdoor Piazzolla extravaganza at the Obelisk, the iconic monument in downtown Buenos Aires.

All the polemics, all the controversies about his music today it is all immaterial, said Esteban Speyer, 61, who heads the Piazzolla music conservatory here. The old tango is reduced to memories, while every day more and more people admire Piazzollas work.

Patrick J. McDonnell is the Los Angeles Times Mexico City bureau chief and previously headed LAT bureaus in Beirut, Buenos Aires and Baghdad. A native of the Bronx, McDonnell is a graduate of Columbias Graduate School of Journalism and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard.

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